Mark Hocknull

Certainly Not Prunes

(A Review by Christopher Laurence)

Years ago when fruit arrived seasonally parishioners gathered at their church hall eager to enjoy the advertised strawberry tea. Unfortunately the strawberry season had arrived too late and on the noticeboard the word “strawberries” had been crossed out and “prunes” written across it.

The throng that gathered for the LTS lecture at Bishop Grosseteste College might have felt sympathy for those parishioners when they learned that the expected lecturer had taken ill at the last minute and that the Chancellor had gallantly taken his place. But no one left disappointed after hearing a stunning lecture, erudite, entertaining and enlightening.

Mark Hocknull who, we were reminded, has doctorates in both science and theology, spoke on Science and Religion Throughout History. His premise was that it seemed to be widely felt that Science was winning the argument with Religion today. He chose three historic events which appeared to support this view, and demonstrated that the received perception is mistaken. In each case the fundamental issues were not about religion or science at all. In 1633 Galileo’s friend and admirer Pope Urbanus VIII, could not put the papacy at risk by confronting the Inquisition. In 1863 Bishop Wilberforce, a scientist who admired Darwin’s work, was alarmed that Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest might be taken up as justification for the slave trade. Wilberforce’s opponent in that famous debate on The Origin of the Species, Thomas Huxley, regarded Wilberforce as the epitome of the evils of the class –system which stood in the way of the growth of a meritocracy. In 1925 a judgement of an American court found a teacher (Stokes) guilty of breaking a law purporting to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. The trial was a publicity stunt by the city fathers of Dayton, Ohio, a little town that had fallen on hard times, and the issue of concern was not so much the theory of evolution (which many Americans still reject) but whether any other authority than the will of the people, expressed through their elected representatives, should determine what should be taught in schools.

Mark observed that there are fundamentalists today on both sides of the argument. They are inheritors of the faith of the Enlightenment that there is an objective world which is intelligible to reason. Both sides are locked into their own rationale: they can only tell their own stories. “Our version is true because it is true by the criteria we have chosen”. Aneurin Bevan would ask his interlocutors, “So what is your truth?” In our postmodern times we have to recognise that there are many “truths” which may not necessarily be reconcilable because they live within different thought-frameworks. Someone said, “To believe in God means that every question, in the end, remains open.” Mark Hocknull sees open questions for both science and religion. He doesn’t see any winners.

Christopher Laurence